Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Be a Better Beta

I think most seasoned writers agree: our betas are one of our most valuable assets. We count on them to polish our early drafts into something shiny and fit to be seen by the rest of the human population. But for newbies considering beta-ing for the first time, the idea of critiquing someone else’s work can be kind of scary. Are there any rules, you might ask? Well, in my opinion, yes. Yes there are. Read on below for Debra’s Rules for Being a Better Beta.

1. Ask the writer what he or she expects BEFORE you start. Because, OMG, there’s a huge difference between general feedback and line editing. I think there’s some conventional wisdom that says you should read every novel you crit at least twice, once for big picture stuff, and the second time for line edits. I’m convinced whoever said that had 500 hours in a day, all of them allocated to reading. The truth is, if you’re like me, you have beta reads lined up til kingdom come, and hai there, a WIP that needs to be written, revisions to do, etc, etc, etc. Plus there are those little hassles of daily life—work, kids, hubbies, eating—that tend to get in the way. So unless you just really have boatloads of time, I’d suggest doing one or the other, general or line, and working it out with the writer up front. Some writers don’t like line edits in the first place—as in, you touch that prose, you lose a finger.

2. Which brings us to rule number two: if the writer doesn’t want line edits, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, touch even one syllable of that sparkly prose. Wear socks on your hands while reading if you must, or duct tape them, cover your laptop keys with thumb tacks dipped in rattlesnake venom, whatever you need to do. JUST. DON’T. TWEAK.

(okay, so this is a bit extreme, but it's also one of the most creative uses of duct tape I've ever seen. Hmmm, wonder if it's legal....????)

3. Do a trial run. No, seriously. Ask to beta just the first 3 chapters to start. That way you can both a) make sure your commenting style actually helps the writer and b) have a way out if what you thought was contemporary turns into a Martians-taking-over-the-world-by-inhabiting-the-intestines-of-Golden-Retrievers plotline.

4. Make a sandwich. No, not the eating kind, silly—though, you can do that too, because beta work does take a well-fed brain—the comment kind. Personally, I’ve always found the criticism easier to take when it’s surrounded on both sides by the good stuff. Sort of like an Oreo. Only with brussel sprouts instead of cream filling.

5. Use your relationship skillz to approach the negative. You know how therapists always suggest avoiding “you” and “your” statements when addressing problems with your spouse/mother-in-law/crazy neighbor who dresses her Yorkie up as RPatz, complete with glitter and tousled fur?

Well, the same applies to critiquing. Avoid sentences starting with “you” or “your” if at all possible. For example, do NOT say:

“Your prose makes me want to gouge out my eyeballs with a dull spork.”

“You really should delete this entire manuscript and start over. On a new topic. And use a ghostwriter.”

Just like in relationships, “I” statements are often more palatable. As in:

* “In my opinion, this characterization could be stronger."


“I feel like the pacing dropped off a bit here”

Also, note the use of “could” above? Could is your beta-ready friend. Could implies that it’s something the writer might think about—not that they MUST do as you say. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty darn stubborn. I am much more likely to pull a mule if someone tells me I MUST do something to my novel, rather than suggesting I think about it.

*Okay, so I cheated a little, because really, “In my opinion, your prose makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a dull spork” still sounds pretty crappy. But you get my point (bad pun intended).

6. Always, always be both respectful AND honest.* In my opinion (see what I did there?) these traits are both key in a good beta. If you’re not respectful, you run the risk of having the writer discard your input, no matter how spot-on it might be. And if you’re not honest? Well, you’re not doing your job. The writer counts on YOU to tell her what’s working and what’s not. If you’re not able to do that, then you shouldn’t be beta-ing. Period.

*If you ARE honest, be prepared for the person you’re critting to hate you for at least ten full minutes, regardless of how kindly you’ve worded your comments. This is normal. If you must crit in person, ignore any tears, ranting and hand waving, or other disturbing behavior that occurs during this time frame.

7. Finally, have fun, and enjoy the experience. Beta-ing can be a great way to improve your own craft by analyzing the highs and lows in your peers’ work--and make you feel good for helping someone else out. Really, it's a win-win situation.


Josh said...

I think this is wisdom.

When I was just starting out with beta readers, I didn't really know what to ask for them, and they didn't know how to approach it except a desire to be helpful.

All I got were line edits, which was nice, but line edits were not at all what I was after.

I think we both learned the hard way about being articulate about expectations before the process begins.

Heather said...

Great advice! There pretty much isn't anything I don't agree with.

I will share a little story, though (That's right! Gather round!) I went to a conference once which included a workshop of your WIP. We discussed the pages, and then I got my written feedback back. One of the people, who actually said some interesting things in the discussion, had literally crossed out and rewritten 80%-85% of my sentences. (I like to think this is because she writes literary fiction for adults and I write books for teenagers, and not because she thinks I can't string two sentences together.) Even though some of the other comments she wrote may have been useful, I didn't even bother to look at them because what she did pissed me off so much. So that's why you definitely want to discuss your expectations. (Which for me are "Don't rewrite my book." I'm totally cool with suggestions here and there, or editing for grammar, etc. But this was ridic.)

Unknown said...

This is such a great post. I'm so excited to have my work read by a beta, and the beta myself, but it's way helpful to hear some lessons learned before I dive in. Thanks!

Debra D. said...

Glad you all are finding my post helpful! My very first beta experience involved me reading a book that was both a) uber-high fantasy (I don't read high fantasy) and b) seemed to be written for people with IQs over 200 (I don't have one of those, either. Curses.)

Let's just say it was very, very challenging for me and leave it at that. From that experience, I've learned to pre-screen my beta partners to make sure the process is enjoyable, for both of us.

Unknown said...

Great tips! Now I just have to find someone to swap with!

karen yuan said...

Wow, this is like the Bible of betaing. Seriously. I loved the points about line edits and trial runs! Never thought of that. Thank you ♥

Kara said...

Love this post. Deb cracks me up :D (But everything she said is very true!)

Katie Ashley said...

HAHA, great post Deb! It is hilariously honest. Beta reading is a scary thing when you're starting out...hell, it can be scary when you've done it a 1K times. Finding critique partners is invaluable in your writing career, and I know for me, I like to "pay it forward" maybe for those newbies who haven't found writerly peeps yet.

Love the pics...is it wrong that for just a fleeting moment I thought that baby was your daughter? LOL

Katie Ashley said...
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B. A. Binns said...

When I work with a beta reader I always send them a list of things I want them to concentrate on - like sub-plots or "does the heroine seem whiny", I want them to kniow right up front that if they see obvious errors in spelling or grammar go ahead and tell me, but what I'm looking for is the overall feel. And vice versa, I will ask them for things they want before I begin. That makes the relationdhip better for both of us.

Anonymous said...

This is the good information for me to read. I want to be good writer for american fiction for kids and for teens. This YA is what for correct? This blog is good sometimes sometimes not very but this is good one.

Ahmed Karshitan

Jennifer Walkup said...

This is a great post! Good points all around for beta readers and those on the recieving end of the crit as well.:)

Melanie said...

These are some great tips. Thank you so much. The "I" statements didn't even occur to me. So thank you :-)

Carol Riggs said...

Very thorough, great post! I have asked my betas to keep a look-out for certain things in my mss, but generally I don't, because I want to see if they'll pick up something I'm wondering about, or if they'll pick up on and say the same thing as another reader said. (Rats, they usually do. LOL)
Being a predominantly line-edit kind of critiquer, like on my own blog and with beta swappers, it's REALLY good to be warned that this will irk some people. I need to be careful! A lot of times I personally find it easier to see the little structural things rather than the Big Picture. I think some people are good at the sentence structure/grammar sorts of things, and some people concentrate on the bigger issues like conflict and plot and stuff. I value both kinds of feedback!

J.S. Wood said...

Great post and info, Deb!!

Janine said...

Excellent article. SOO true. And, for my money, as much as I totally NEED line edits too, I'm usually looking for the big-picture concerns when I ask for a beta reader. I mean, yeah, thanks for noticing that comma, but if the whole chapter is like sludging through ankle-deep mud and must be killed, the comma will go anyway.

I think you guys should do a follow-up post on how to take comments from your betas? To be a good beta'd writer? How do we not have a word for this? Anyhow, I think there are tricks to understand what your betas say, being appreciative and figuring out how to handle the whole relationship.

Shari Green said...

Thanks for this great post! I'm trying to become a better critiquer/beta-reader, so it's great to come across these tips. :)